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Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, gave state lawmakers an update about her first three months at the helm of the Department of Human Services. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Third-party group to study potential restructure of Minn. Department of Human Services

ST. PAUL — The Walz administration on Friday, Dec. 13, announced that it would seek out a private group to study the potential restructuring of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

In a news release, Gov. Tim Walz said he had set out parameters for an independent expert that would be tasked with conducting a review of the department and determine whether breaking it up could help solve some of its problems.

The department took in more than $17 billion in the current two-year budget and employs more than 6,000 to implement services for 1.2 million children, the elderly and vulnerable Minnesotans. And it came under scrutiny earlier this year after a series of top-level leadership moves and news of more than $100 million in funds misspent.

Walz said Public Sector Consultants, another external group, would review possible areas that the independent assessor should take up and would lay the groundwork for the thrid-party review so it can begin in February. DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead, who reached her 100-day mark at the agency's helm this week, has laid out measures the department is taking to address problems at the department, including the creation of an advisory panel to advise Harpstead and review progress. Medtronic CEO and Chair Bill George is set to co-chair the group.

“As my Administration surfaces issues at the Department of Human Services that have been going on for years, we must dig deeper to find the root of these problems," Walz said. "That is why we need an outside expert to take an independent look at DHS and recommend whether breaking up the agency would improve efficiency, increase accountability and better serve Minnesotans.”

Lawmakers and DHS officials for years have discussed breaking up the department. And following this most recent set of dustups, they've split on whether the move would help or hurt DHS.

Supporters say splitting the department could allow for clearer duties within the agencies that emerge as well as more transparency about each section, while opponents say breaking up DHS could create additional bureaucracy without addressing problems that spurred improper payments.

Republicans, who hold control of the Minnesota Senate, said they were glad to see the governor ask for an external review and hoped he would work with lawmakers on a path forward for the department.

"Breaking up the department is a monumental task, and something the Legislature has examined before," Sen. Michelle Benson, who chairs the Health and Humans Services Committee, said. "We know what happens when Democrats go it alone, ignore bipartisanship and force their ideas on Minnesotans: The result is MNsure. Instead, we should replicate the MNLARS approach; when Senate Republicans have a seat at the table and voice in the debate, we find solutions that benefit the whole state."